The planet Medusa gleamed like a dull ball bearing far below as Fearless slid into her assigned parking orbit for rendezvous with Warlock. It wasn't much of a planet, Honor thought, watching it on the visual display. She was well-aware her concentration on Medusa stemmed from a need to think about anything but the upcoming interview with her senior officer, but her mood had little to do with her conclusion that Medusa had to be the most boring-looking world she'd ever seen.
It was gray-green, relieved only by weather patterns and the glaring white of massive polar ice caps. Even its deep, narrow seas were a barely lighter shade of the omnipresent gray-green—a soupy sludge of plankton and larger plant forms that thrived in a brew the environmental control people would have condemned in a heartbeat back on Sphinx. Medusa's axial tilt was extreme, over forty degrees, which, coupled with its cool primary, produced a climate more brutal even than Manticore-B's Gryphon. The planetary flora was well-adapted to its severe environment, but it showed an appalling lack of variation, for Medusa was covered in moss. Thousands—millions—of varieties of moss. Short, fuzzy moss in place of grass. Higher-growing, brushy moss in place of bushes. Even, God help us all, great, big, floppy mounds of moss in place of trees. She'd heard about it, even seen holos, but this was the first time she'd seen it with her own eyes, and it wasn't the same at all.
She gave a wry grimace of distaste and turned her eyes resolutely to the sight she'd been avoiding. HMS Warlock floated in the same orbit, barely a hundred kilometers clear, and she swallowed a bitter-tasting envy mixed with old hatred as she gazed at her.
The Star Knight class were the RMN's latest heavy cruisers, three and a half times more massive than Fearless and with almost six times her firepower, even before Hephaestus and Horrible Hemphill had butchered her. The big, sleek ship hung there, taunting Honor's elderly command with its mere presence, and knowing who commanded that beautiful vessel made it far, far worse. She'd thought she'd hit bottom when they assigned her to Basilisk Station; now she knew she had.
The duty helmsman brought Fearless to rest relative to Warlock, and she drew a deep breath, wondering if any of her crew guessed why she'd left Nimitz in her quarters. Not that she intended to tell them.
"Call away my cutter, please," she requested. "Mr. Venizelos, you have the watch."
"Aye, aye, Ma'am," Venizelos replied, and watched curiously as his captain stepped into the lift and headed for the boat bay.
Honor sat silently, arms folded, as her cutter crept across the emptiness between Fearless and Warlock. She'd been tempted, in a way, to use one of her pinnaces, but she knew why—just as she knew that that particular bit of ostentation would have been one too many. So she'd taken her cutter, despite the fact that it moved far more slowly than a pinnace would have. Even the most efficient thrusters gave a much weaker acceleration than impellers, and a cutter was too small to mount an impeller drive. It was also too small for the inertial compensator needed to offset an impeller's brutal power, though its gravity generator could compensate for the lower gee-force of its thrusters. Yet despite Honor's own impatience and need to get this over, the trip was short, even at the cutter's relatively slow speed. Too short. She'd spent the last thirty-one hours dreading this moment.
Her pilot completed his final approach, and the cutter shivered as Warlock's tractors captured it. It rolled on its gyros, aligning itself with the heavy cruiser's internal gravity as the brilliantly-lit cavern of Warlock's boat bay engulfed them, then settled into the docking cradle. Alloy clanged gently as hatch collars mated, and the green pressure light glowed.
She was alone, and she allowed herself a sigh as she stood and tucked her beret under her epaulet. Then she tugged the skirt of her tunic down, squared her shoulders, and walked briskly through the opening hatch and down the tube into the twitter of bosun's calls and the salutes of the side party.
Young hadn't come down to welcome her in person, she saw. She supposed it was a calculated insult—it was the petty sort of gesture at which he excelled—but she was relieved by his absence. It gave her a chance to settle herself and get her inner defenses in place before the inevitable confrontation.
She stopped in front of the short, squared-off commander heading the side party and saluted.
"Permission to come aboard, Sir?" she asked.
"Permission granted, Commander Harrington." He returned her salute, then extended his hand. "Paul Tankersley, Warlock's exec." His voice was deep and resonant, his clasp firm, but there was an edge of curiosity in his sharp eyes. Honor wondered if he'd heard rumors about her and Young.
"If you'll accompany me, Commander," Tankersley went on after a brief pause, "the Captain is waiting in Briefing One."
"Lead on." She made a tiny gesture for him to precede her, and the two of them walked through the side party to the waiting lift.
There was no small talk on the way, which, Honor reflected, probably did indicate that Tankersley knew at least a little about her. After all, he could hardly begin a conversation with, "Do you and the Captain still hate each other's guts, Commander?" Nor could he ask for her side of it without seeming disloyal to his own CO. Under the circumstances, a prudent silence was undoubtedly his wisest course, and she felt her lips twitch with acid amusement as the lift slid to a halt.
"This way, Commander," Tankersley said, and she followed him down a short passage to the briefing room hatch. He came to a halt, pressed the admittance button, and stood aside as the panel slid open. She thought she saw just a touch of sympathy in his expression as she walked past him.
Captain Lord Young was seated behind the conference table, perusing a sheet of hardcopy. He didn't look up as she entered, and she gritted her teeth, amazed that such a trivial insult could make her so angry. She crossed to the table and stood silently, determined to wait him out.
He was the same flashy, handsome man he'd always been, she noted. Putting on a little weight, perhaps, but the short beard hid his incipient double chin quite well, and his tailoring was excellent. It always had been, even at the Academy, where everyone was supposed to wear the same Navy-issue uniform. But, then, the rules never had applied to him. Pavel Young was the eldest son and heir of the Earl of North Hollow—a point he had no intention of allowing anyone to forget.
Honor had no idea what he'd done to get himself banished to Basilisk Station. Probably, she thought bitterly, he'd simply been himself. Patronage could advance an officer's career—witness the fact that Young, who'd graduated only one form before her, had made list five years ago. Once an officer's name was on the captain's list, his eventual flag rank was guaranteed. Unless he did something so drastic the Fleet cashiered him, he only had to live long enough for simple seniority to see to that.
But rank, as many a Manticoran officer had discovered, was no guarantee of employment. An incompetent usually found himself on half-pay, still carried on the active-duty list but without a command. Half-pay was supposed to provide a reserve of experienced officers against future need by retaining those surplus to the service's current requirements; in practice, it was used to put fumble-fingered idiots too important to dismiss from the Queen's service where they could do no harm. Obviously Young hadn't gotten himself into that category—yet—but the fact that he'd been senior officer in Basilisk for almost a T-year now seemed a pretty clear hint someone at the Admiralty was less than thrilled with his performance.
Which, no doubt, was only going to make him more poisonous than ever to deal with.
He finished pretending to read his hardcopy and replaced it fastidiously on the tabletop, then raised his eyes.
"Commander." The tenor voice was smooth, draping his enmity like velvet wrapped about a dagger's blade.
"Captain," she returned in the same emotionless tone, and his mouth twitched a brief almost-smile. He did not invite her to sit.
"I'm relieved to see your ship. We've been even more shorthanded than usual since Implacable left."
Honor contented herself with a silent nod, and he tipped his chair back.
"As you know, Basilisk Station is chronically understrength," he went on, "and I'm afraid Warlock is sadly overdue for refit. In fact, this—" he tapped the hardcopy "—is a list of our most urgently required repairs." He smiled. "That's why I'm so pleased to see you, Commander. Your presence will permit me to return Warlock to Manticore for the yard attention she needs so badly."
He watched her face, and Honor bit the inside of her lip and fought to keep her dismay from showing. If Young was dispatching his own ship to Manticore, he undoubtedly intended to shift to Fearless. The mere thought of sharing her bridge with him was enough to turn her stomach, but she managed, somehow, to stand in attentive silence with no sign of her thoughts.
"Under the circumstances," he continued after a moment, "and in view of the extensive nature of our needs, I feel it would be inadvisable to ask Commander Tankersley to assume responsibility for Warlock's refit." He extended a data chip and smiled as she took it without touching his hand.
"Therefore, Commander Harrington, I will be accompanying Warlock back to Manticore to supervise her refit in person." This time her surprise was too great to hide completely. He was the station's senior officer! Did he mean he intended to abandon his responsibility for the system?! "I will, of course, return as quickly as possible. I realize my absence will be . . . inconvenient for you, and I will make every effort to keep it as brief as possible, but I estimate that the necessary maintenance and repairs will consume at least two months. More probably—" he smiled again "—three. During that time, you will be senior officer here in Basilisk. Your orders are on the chip."
He let his chair slip back upright and picked up his hard copy once more.
"That will be all, Commander. Dismissed."
Honor found herself back in the passage outside the briefing room without any clear memory of how she'd gotten there. The data chip cut into her palm with the pressure of her grip, and she made herself relax her hand one muscle at a time.
She looked up, and Commander Tankersley recoiled. Her dark eyes smoked like heated steel, a slight tic quivered at the corner of her tight mouth, and for just an instant her expression touched him with fear. But she asserted control quickly and forced a smile as she saw the concern on his face. He started to say something else, but her half-raised hand stopped him, and he retreated once more into his safe neutrality.
Honor inhaled deeply, and then deliberately drew the white beret from her shoulder. She settled it precisely on her head without looking at Tankersley, but she felt the weight of his eyes. Courtesy forbade a visiting captain to wear the white beret when a guest upon another's ship, and that made the gesture a calculated insult to the man she'd just left behind.
She turned back to her guide, beret on her head, and those dark, hard eyes challenged him to react. It was a challenge Tankersley declined, content to maintain his isolation as he escorted her silently back toward the lift.
Honor was grateful for his silence, for her brain was trying to grapple with too many thoughts at once. Memories of the Academy dominated them, especially of the terrible scene in the commandant's office as Mr. Midshipman Lord Young, broken ribs and collarbone still immobilized, split lips still puffed and distended, one blackened eye swollen almost shut, was required to apologize to Ms. Midshipman Harrington for his "inappropriate language and actions" before the official reprimand for "conduct unbecoming" went into his file.
She should have told the whole story, she thought miserably, but he was the son of a powerful nobleman and she was only the daughter of a retired medical officer. And not a particularly beautiful one, either. Who would have believed the Earl of North Hollow's son had assaulted and attempted to rape a gawky, overgrown lump of a girl who wasn't even pretty? Besides, where was her proof? They'd been alone—Young had seen to that!—and she'd been so shaken she'd fled back to her dorm room instead of reporting it instantly. By the time anyone else knew a thing about it, his cronies had dragged him off to the infirmary with some story about "falling down the stairs" on his way to the gym.
And so she'd settled for the lesser charge, the incident that had happened earlier, before witnesses, when she rebuffed his smugly confident advances. Perhaps if she hadn't been so surprised, so taken aback by his sudden interest and obvious assurance that she would agree, she might have declined more gracefully. But it wasn't a problem she'd ever had before. She'd never developed the techniques for declining without affronting his overweening ego, and he hadn't taken it well. No doubt that "slight" to his pride was what had triggered later events, but his immediate response had been bad enough, and the Academy took a dim view of sexual harassment, especially when it took the form of insulting language and abusive conduct directed by a senior midshipman at a junior. Commandant Hartley had been furious enough with him over that, but who would have believed the truth?
Commandant Hartley would have, she thought. She'd realized that years ago, and hated herself for not telling him at the time. Looking back, she could recognize his hints, his all but overt pleas for her to tell him everything. If he hadn't suspected, he would hardly have required Young to apologize after she'd reduced him to a bloody pulp. Young had counted on neither the strength and reaction time Sphinx's gravity bestowed nor the extra tutoring in unarmed combat Chief MacDougal had been giving her, and she'd known better than to let him up after she had him down. He was only lucky he'd tried for her in the showers, when Nimitz wasn't around, for he would be far less handsome today if the treecat had been present.
No doubt it was as well Nimitz hadn't been there, and, she admitted, there'd been a certain savage joy in hurting him herself for what he'd tried to do. But the response had been entirely out of proportion to his official offense, and no one had ever doubted that his "fall" had been nothing of the sort. Hartley might not have had any proof, but he would never have come down on Young so harshly under the circumstances if he hadn't had a pretty shrewd notion of what had actually happened.
Yet she hadn't realized that then, and she'd told herself she'd already dealt with the matter, anyway. That she didn't want to precipitate a scandal that could only hurt the Academy. That it was a case of least said, soonest mended, since no one would have believed her anyway. Bad enough to be involved in something so humiliating and degrading without exposing herself to that, as well! She'd almost been able to hear the sniggers about the homely horse of a girl and her "delusions," and, after all, hadn't she let herself get a little carried away? There'd been no need to pound him into semi-consciousness. That had gone beyond simple selfdefense into the realm of punishment.
So she'd let the matter rest, and in so doing she'd bought herself the worst of both worlds. Attempted rape was one of the service's crash-and-burn offenses; if Young had been convicted of that, he would never have worn an officer's uniform, noble birth or no. But he hadn't been. She hadn't gotten him out of the service, and she had made an enemy for life, for Young would never forget that she'd beaten him bloody. Nor would he ever forgive her for the humiliation of being forced to apologize to her before Commandant Hartley and his executive officer, and he had powerful friends, both in and out of the service. She'd felt their influence more than once in her career, and his malicious delight in dropping full responsibility for the entire Basilisk System on her shoulders—leaving her with a single, over-age light cruiser to do a job which should have been the task of an entire flotilla—burned on her tongue like poison. It was petty and vicious . . . and entirely in keeping with his personality.
She inhaled deeply as the lift reached the boat bay and its door opened once more. She'd regained enough of her composure to shake Tankersley's hand and make herself sound almost normal as she bade him farewell and boarded her cutter once more.
She settled back in her seat as the cutter separated from Warlock and headed back to Fearless, and her mind reached out to grapple with her crew's reaction to this latest development. No doubt they would see Warlock's departure as one more sign that they'd been demoted to the least important duty the Fleet could find and abandoned, and they would soon realize just how heavy a burden Young had dropped on them. Her single ship would be required to police the entire system and all of the traffic passing through the Basilisk terminus, and there was no way they could do it. They couldn't be in enough places at once, and trying to would impose a mind- and body-numbing strain on all of them.
Which was exactly what Young had intended. He was leaving her an impossible job, content in the knowledge that her failure to discharge it would go into her record. Unlike him, Honor had yet to make list, and if she botched her first independent command, however it had fallen on her, she never would.
But she hadn't botched it yet, and she nodded to herself—a choppy, angry nod. Even knowing that Young had set her up, that he intended for her to fail and ruin herself, was better than serving under his command, she told herself. Let him take himself off to Manticore. The sooner he got out of the same star system as her, the better she'd like it! And of one thing she was certain; she couldn't do any worse at the job than he had.
She'd made a mistake once where he was concerned. She wouldn't let him push her into another. Whatever it took, she would discharge her own duties and meet her own responsibilities. Not just to protect her career, but because they were her duties and responsibilities. Because she would not let an aristocratic piece of scum like Pavel Young win.
She straightened her spine and looked down at the data chip of her orders, and her dark brown eyes were dangerous.